A Closer Look at Belarus’s New Political Party and Its Leader

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 20 Issue: 52

(Source: Sn-plus.com)

On March 18, the pro-presidential social movement “Belaya (White) Rus” became a political party. This decision was made by the organization’s inaugural congress in its new capacity. The respective aspirations have been repeatedly voiced since 2008—that is, almost from the very foundation of Belaya Rus. However, each time President Alyaksandr Lukashenka stood in the way. In 2008, he issued a sharp rebuke: “They say that Lukashenka is creating a party of power for himself and that an entry about belonging to Belaya Rus will be included in personal questionnaires [used for employment, conscription, etc.]. I will immediately cancel these speculations. I categorically do not accept any pro-presidential political structures. I have always relied and continue to rely on the people, and not on groups or clans.” The Belarusian president even issued a threat: “I will see what kind of officials there are in this party and what they are doing there. Perhaps they are not too busy in their line of work” (Sn-plus.com, March 20).

With this in mind, Lukashenka also rejected calls to make Belaya Rus an official political party in 2010, 2012, 2015 and 2016. Subsequently, his objections lost their categorical rigor, but he continued to reason that “parties ought to grow from the ground up, not in a top-down fashion” (Belta, December 20, 2010)—though few, if any, grassroots political initiatives have been allowed to flourish in local political culture. In 2019–2020, prior to the August 2020 presidential elections and for a couple of months thereafter, a persistent rumor was spreading that the Kremlin had suggested that Lukashenka follow the example of Kazakhstan and carry out a transition of power to a successor who would guarantee his security and maintain his course. That idea was accompanied by yet another—namely, that several parties be created in Belarus, including a party through which Moscow may be able to control Belarusian political life.

Lukashenka, however, has always been hostile to such developments. Moreover, political affiliations that used to emerge in the numerically significant and adamantly pro-Russian segment of Belarusian society have been either thwarted or prevented from winning local elections. This is what happened to entities headed by formerly ascending politicians Andrei Gerashchenko and Artem Agafonov, as Lukashenka did not want to multiply conduits of Kremlin’s influence for two primary reasons. First, these conduits are already numerous anyway. Second, in the domestic political scene, the Belarusian president wanted to limit such conduits to himself so he could use Russia’s influence creatively and keep it in check. One paradoxical consequence of such a predisposition is that, in Belarus, only pro-Western opposition used to be allowed (Carnegieendowment.org, April 12, 2018).

It could be that, with the passage of time and in the wake of what many called the abortive but genuine 2020 revolution, Lukashenka has been thinking about creating additional regime props for the sake of his potential retirement. This largely explains the acquisition of the constitutional status by the All-Belarusian People’s Assembly, the enhanced role of the National Security Council and the permission to form a pro-presidential political party. Even so, Lukashenka did not participate in the inaugural congress, nor was any information whatsoever published about it on the presidential website President.gov.by. The last mention of Belaya Rus on the site dates to January 19, 2018, when Lukashenka greeted the organization’s third congress (President.gov.by, January 19, 2018).

Oleg Romanov, a member of the Council of the Republic, the upper chamber of the Belarusian parliament, who was elected as leader of the new party, is worth closer examination. He was initially elected the leader of the eponymous social movement in June 2022. Born in Grodno in 1975, Romanov graduated from Grodno State University and initially worked as a psychologist at a secondary school. He then defended his doctoral thesis as a philosopher, titled “East Slavic Civilization as a Subject of Contemporary Global Social Transformations.” His dissertation led to the publication of two Russian-language books, first in Germany (2014) and then by Grodno State University (2018). He subsequently worked as vice president of his alma mater, and then, in 2020–2021 as president of Polotsk State University. An opposition-minded media outlet claims Romanov conducted ideological purges at the school in the wake of the stormy events of 2020 (Nasha Niva, June 24, 2022).

Romanov’s thesis advisor, Czeslaw Kriwel of Grodno University, is a devout “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) sympathizer. Kriwel even criticized Lukashenka for allegedly following in the footsteps of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, whose book Ukraine Is No Russia has since become a meme (Slovo.ru, October 19, 2018). Kriwel perceived that the Belarusian leader, similar to Kuchma, claimed that neither is Belarus and that Lukashenka was voicing this claim all too vigorously.

Apparently, Romanov internalized and further developed Kriwel’s worldview. Romanov’s two extensive television interviews in 2022 provide ample information on this. In an interview on August 18, 2022, he suggested that the connotation of the phrase “civilized world” no longer applies to Western civilization; rather, it is suitable for East-Slavic civilization and called on “import substitution” not just in industry but in the area of sociopolitical ideas as well (YouTube, August 18). In the second interview, Romanov acknowledged that his current political stance was conditioned by his observations regarding the Soviet Union’s breakup, which he labeled “a crime,” and by Belarusian society’s social lift that allowed him, a person of modest upbringing, to climb the social ladder (YouTube, September 1).

While it is totally unknown at this point who will succeed Lukashenka, it seems that Romanov is a likely type—if not necessarily the likely person. Well-schooled in the ideology required for ascending Belarusian elites, he is entirely devoid of Lukashenka’s folkish charisma. This is a forte, because alike charges repel each other, and because the general Belarusian public may welcome a change in character type at the helm of power—much like Russians back in 1999–2000 welcomed the replacement of Boris Yeltsin by a rather dissimilar persona in the form of Vladimir Putin.